September '06 SF BOTM: Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by Erfael, Sep 1, 2006.

  1. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    Discussion is now open for Downbelow Station. Odo, who nominated the book has contributed some questions to kick us off. As always, these are only a starting point. Feel free to discuss any and all things that occurred to you in your reading of this Hugo winner.


    1) "Downbelow station" is set during a war, but we (almost) never witness the battles, only their consequences. What do you think about this way of telling the story? Would you have liked the book more if it the focus was like that of more typical Space Opera with lots of explosions?

    2) There are many different characters in the story. Which one was your favourite? Which one did you like the least?

    3) What do you think of the process of "Adjustment," both morally and from a story-telling perspective?

    4) Have you read any other Cherryh's books set in the Alliance-Union universe? If not, are you planning to read any?

    5) C. J. Cherryh is well-known for her aliens. How did you find the Downers as an alien race? How important was their alien-ness to the overall story?
     
  2. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    I'm still only about halfway through this but I'll take a stab

    1) I hadn't thought of it specifically that way, but it is interesting. After all, unless you personally are a soldier in the war, chances are you won't see the explody stuff.

    2) It is a bit confusing with all the characters at first. This book NEEDS a character listing/dramatis personae type of thing. ESPECIALLY with multiple intelligent species.

    3) Later

    4) No bit there is a strong possibility I will.

    5) Speech patterns are the most notable things right now, but like I said, I'm only halfway through.
     
  3. Ropie

    Ropie Member of the Month™

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    There has been a postal strike here for a while so I'm still waiting for my copy to arrive.
     
  4. Mugwump

    Mugwump New Member

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    I think it’s an enjoyable, if somewhat trivial piece of SF. Cherryh has an easily consumed fast-paced style that lends itself to long-haul periods of reading without much effort. That said, she does posses a rather odd appreciation of (especially parenthetical) comma usage, which suggests to me that she doesn’t grasp the difference between them and full stops.

    The pace is that of space opera, but the literary devices, narrative techniques etc. she deploys seem more reminiscent of the disaster genre, or the WWII epic.

    Her characters have an acceptable level of depth and at several points show considerable complexity (I’m thinking of the bit where Elene, shocked by the loss of her family, begs Damon for a baby).

    Downbelow Station, as well of most of Cherryh’s catalogue for that matter, seems to draw quite heavily from the grimy, oil-soaked, roughneck and cynical world of Ridley Scott’s Alien (man-sized air vents are held to be a given in space!), where corporations have evolved into monolithic interplanetary powers with scant regard to human considerations. I think Cherryh’s carved out something of a niche in this field of ‘techno-speak savvy’ and I suspect she’s influenced quite a number of contemporary writers.

    It’s interesting that she pitches herself between the culturally stagnant Earth (considered bad) and the autocratic Union (considered worse), siding with the pioneering and liberal (in the traditional sense) settlers, who are held to be at the forefront of human progress. Indeed, the novel references several key elements of American history, most notably those in the nation's formative years. The trek West by the early settlers; the “boom times” of cow town; the sense of loss as interstellar travel renders station life pointless, which mirrors the railway’s destruction of the Old West; the conflict between white America and the Indians is represented in spades on the Downer world (“Don’t insult me with any Downer’s word!”) etc.

    I think the Union (and its snivelling, morally corrupt allies – the Lukas family) seems like a bit of a set-em-up-and-knock-em-down enemy. They use torture. They’re grown in vats. They reek of Aryan supermen. They’re fanatics etc. It’s all pretty unsophisticated and puerile stuff that undermines proceedings considerably. Cherryh should have known better.

    I’m still trying to discover why the diplomacy of the future should take place through the language and mannerisms of Victorian Britain.

    On the issue of military might and the power of the military as political kingmakers Cherryh hits closer to the mark. The company space-carrier captains are straight from the pages of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They’re old-style Roman provincial commanders with loyalties only to themselves and the power to dictate government at the muzzle end of a gun. I found the political machinations between Signy and Mazian pretty interesting.

    Downbelow Station's biggest problems are its two primary representations of difference: mindwipe and the Downers. The possibilities for exploring the ramifications of personality adjustment/reconstruction are pretty limitless. But Cherryh never really gets beyond first base with Talley. Talley strikes me as a fascinating beginning that never progresses. It’s almost as if Cherryh got cold feet or lost her nerve halfway through the novel. By the time I’d finished I wasn’t sure whether the procedure had had any effect on Talley.

    Cherryh gets a bit further with the touchy-feely Downers, but not much. The cliché of humans reminded of their humanity by aliens was running close to flatline in the fifties. There’s no real attempt to explore the mysteries of Downer culture, society, philosophy etc. They’re cute (with big teddy bear eyes) and sentimental and they say ‘love you’ (nauseatingly) a lot and … well … that’s about it. ‘The humans were infected with the hisa’s trust’ – please God, no!

    Without significant exploration of its two key concepts the book kind of dissolves into something unsatisfactory. Enjoyable – but lacking real sophistication and depth.
     
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2006
  5. clong

    clong Registered User

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    I found this book very entertaining, and put it in the "almost great" category.

    I felt that both Mallory and Talley's were characters with great potential that didn't quite get there (and their relationship for that matter).

    I felt that the downers were reasonably interesting, but not strikingly nonhuman in the way that the most fascinating scifi aliens are. They are a lot like wimpy humans with a twist, "little guys" who naturally enough the good people want to protect and the bad people want to exploit. The conclusion of downer storyline could have been much more effective.

    Still, I gave it an 8/10.
     
  6. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    Cherryh lost me at about the halfway point, I hate to admit. I shouldn't be surprised, since her Dreaming Tree was less than entertaining. I might have to redact my statement about trying more of her books, I've tried twice and lost steam around the midpoint.

    Her style, I found a bit off-putting. It seemed as if sentences were abruptly ended or begun in the middle.

    There were alot of characters and like I said, a list of characters really would have helped. I admit to being confused at times, especially when pages of dialogue go pass and it we only see "he said" on the entire page rather than "Lukas said," once in a while.

    I'm especially let down, on the whole, because I wanted to read and like this book for a while, but it just didn't connect with me sufficiently.
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2006
  7. Ropie

    Ropie Member of the Month™

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    I'm about three chapters in now and have the feeling that I'm missing something. To me the book is close to unreadable, the style, is, unbelieveable, with so much, punctuation,,,,the first 30 pages have been mind-numbingly dull - does it improve suddenly? I'm not sure how much more of my life I can give over to this book...
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2006
  8. Yobmod

    Yobmod Yobmod

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    I started this book a few weeks ago, but stopped about halfway through. I'll finish one day, but only because i want to read Cyteen eventually.

    The characters i'm not ifnding memorable (I've forgotten all the names already), and I had no interest in whatever war was going on - few of the characters were shown to feel strongly either way, so nor did I.
    Also, I had heard Cherryh's use of aliens was inventive or special, but in this case they were very typical humanoids, with unappealing care bear attributes.

    I didn't notice the writing being particularly bad, and i have vague memories of enjoying Rimrunners, so i think it is the plot and characters that put me off here. Too slow and boring.

    Did anyone else get the feeling from the first half that the book could have been set in an airport in the real world? How boring is that? A bit like watching one of those Airport documentaries showing the daily crises, but without the zany, desperate to be on TV characters. :D
     
  9. Ropie

    Ropie Member of the Month™

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    I'm throwing in the towel..

    I couldn't tell where it was set, or what was going on or who any of the umpteen characters who flashed before us were. It's rare that I pick up a book and instantly dislike it so much. I read the first three chapters and I can't read any more of this; to me it represents the worst aspects of the genre - tedious tactical info, characters who exist as names and little else, military jargon, utterly unfeasible deep space nonsense, urgh! If it was a good piece of writing I would probably give it a chance but it's just unreadable. Maybe I'll try to pick it up again later on but don't hold your breath! And what were those sketches at the beginning?? Hardly the way to begin a novel like this - a couple of scratchy biro sketches.
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2006
  10. ArthurFrayn

    ArthurFrayn the puppet master

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    Do you have to read this to read Cyteen?
     
  11. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    I wouldn't think so. I've read three things in the Alliance-Union universe so far and they all stand completely on their own. Actually, I had to go look up to see if my previous reads were actually in that universe. They were peripheral to any actual conflict between the two factions.
     
  12. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    No, Arthur - but if you found Downbelow hard going, you will definitely find Cyteen hard work!

    There are a few of Cherryh's books that use the same set up (Merchanter series/Alliance/Union) though are standalone: 4000 in Gehenna, for one.

    Hobbit
     
  13. ArthurFrayn

    ArthurFrayn the puppet master

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    Well, I have Cyteen, so I guess my first shot at Cherryh will be a drop right into the deep end of the pool! ;)

    Glad to hear it's not reliant on the other books. I hate when I pick up the middle or the end books in a series first.
     
  14. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    Not that I'm happy at other people's misfortunes, but I'm relieved I wasn't the only one who had such difficulties with the book.
     
  15. Ropie

    Ropie Member of the Month™

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    I always feel bad when I can't finish a book (happens v rarely) but have to admit this book just wasn't for me. I'm not interested in fictional military, am not a big fan of space opera and couldn't get on with Cherryh's odd, disjointed style of writing.

    I don't want to come across as being a lazy reader just because I didn't like the book. I read nothing else but this for three days and reread two chapters twice. Had I not had so many other things to read and do this month I may have persevered.

    Sorry, Odo. :eek:

    To answer the questions:

    1. When I read this question I was quite interested as I am not a fan of graphic authorial representations of battle scenes because they just don't interest me unless the author is very capable and knows how to write them extremely well. I tend to like books where external events deeply affect a plot and are only shown by their consequences (A Canticle for Leibowitz is an example that springs to mind) - it gives a sense of believable grandeur, of larger forces at work. Unfortunately I found Cherryh's descriptions of these consequences virtually impossible to follow.

    2. I only saw the characters here as names, I didn't have time to get interested in one of them. Usually don't appreciate it when books have too many characters though.

    3. No, and on the strength of this, definitely not.
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2006
  16. Mugwump

    Mugwump New Member

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    If this is so I’d say the novel is further undermined. If Unionism is the key representation of difference, why muddy its waters in the first few chapters?

    Surely it would have been more prudent to have Talley not take the option of Adjustment (or not be Unionist in the first place)? Or better still, leave the concept of Adjustment out of the novel completely. Without Adjustment, Talley functions as the classical fish out of water. It’s a “clash of cultures” tale. Unsophisticated and cliché, perhaps - but it works.

    By mind-wiping Talley, Cherryh negates most of the attributes that make Talley different to the stationers. If Talley is no longer symptomatic of Unionism – what is his purpose? The only satisfying avenue for development is portraying Talley as isolated from everyone (the stationers through the remnants of his Unionism and the Union through the effects of Adjustment), but Cherryh never manages to hit this note satisfactorily, IMO.

    In any case, I don’t think Cherryh does anywhere near enough work drawing clear divisions between the Unionists and the central characters. Aside from them appearing as unflinching, unemotional neo-Aryan stormtroopers – what do we know about them? I couldn’t understand the relationship between the elders and their vat-grown creations.

    I didn’t find it anywhere near the difficult read many others here claim it is. I agree Cherryh’s writing style is peculiar, and at times confusing – but this wasn’t a major obstacle. Similarly, I wasn’t put off by the lack of gunfire and space battles. I think the humanitarian crisis brought about by the arrival of the refugees is, for the most part, dramatically compelling. Okay, I wasn’t on the edge of the seat chewing my fingertips – but then I didn’t doze off, either.

    Whilst I don’t think Cherryh is a technically gifted writer, I do think she has a talent for conveying technical detail. The language or jargon of future life on an orbiting space station is convincing and pretty close to how I’d imagine it to be. I had very little difficulty picturing Pell's layered, compartmentalised layout, which kind of reminded me of the underground bio-bunker in The Andromeda Strain. Unfortunately, her flesh-and-blood characters aren’t as intricately constructed.

    Downbelow is very middle-of-the-road stuff for me. Why the awards I've no idea. Maybe 1982 was a bad year for SF.
     
  17. odo

    odo Registered User

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    Hey! The post with my opinion is missing :( However Mugwump was able to quote it :confused: Something very strange is happening :confused: :confused: :confused:
     
  18. Ropie

    Ropie Member of the Month™

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    The forum was down for a day and a half and all of Tuesday's (I think) posts have been lost. Mugwump must have kept a copy of his original reply.
     
  19. Mugwump

    Mugwump New Member

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    Just to confuse everybody. :D
     
  20. FicusFan

    FicusFan Anitaverse Refugee

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    Downbelow Station

    I have been re-reading the whole series, and too busy to post before now.

    I have a completely different view of the the book, and have put some ideas together. ;) I have broken them up into several posts.


    Downbelow Station is a bona-fide masterpiece. It justly deserved the Hugo not only for the year it won, but because as all important works must, it stands the test of time. While this was developed and written in the 70s it reads as fresh as anything written today.

    The book is part of the Company Wars series. There are 15 books in this series, though each can be read as a stand alone, and in any order. The real payoff comes when you understand the full tapestry of the story and the scope and change of the humans in her series. It spans 5,000 years of humanity in space and it looks at the political, social and technologically derived biological changes, and the synergy that drives them. It posits a future where economic interests rule governments, planets, and the lives of everyone, whether you are an employee or not.

    The publication order and the story time-line order are almost opposite of each other. The books that are farthest out in the future of humanity are those that were published first, in the early 70s.

    Cherryh's Alliance-Union series

    Cherryh tells stories in the manner that gives characters only bits and pieces of information, much like real life. People have to decide on their own where the important stress points are, not only to make decisions, but when. Readers have the same amount of information and have to do a lot of thinking and evaluating. There is no narrative voice that explains everything - the reader experiences the same things the charcters do, and have the same doubts, questions, and confusions.

    Her writing can be difficult at first, but there is a rhythm to it and if you can stick with it then it becomes clear. She uses her language to make the differences of future and setting real. She imparts the information of how things work in the future is a clear and logical manner.

    She also does a magnificent job with settings. Though these ships, and stations don’t exist yet: when they do they will be exactly like this, from the chill, the metallic oily smell to the small spaces and similar set up and construction. The individual stories in this book either wrap up, or show how they will continue, but because it is a slice of a larger pie, nothing is ended.

    There is no resolution to the story of the Downers and Downbelow because it is an on-going story. It is a look at a specific time and specific events, and then life goes on. It has no ending.

    This book has so much going on, with so many layers and so many stories. It is an amazing job of juggling, and fleshing out many characters in a very tight manner, and telling a compelling group of stories with such intensity and economy.